The Lost Encyclopedia

An encyclopedia compiled at the order of Yongle, the third emperor of the Luminous Dynasty, which became known as Yongle da dian (The Great Work of Yongle), Yongle being the reign-title of the Emperor. The manuscript of 22,877 sections bound in 11,095 volumes was completed in 1408; two more copies were made in 1567. Like most work beyond 100 pages it is, and was, mostly banalities. The paper proposing and confirming the existence of the double helix was one page long.

The original and one copy were destroyed in Nanjing while the other copy, kept in Hanlin Academy in Peking, was apparently already incomplete when the Academy was destroyed by fire during the Boxer uprising in 1900. A few lost volumes of the encyclopedia are now scattered in libraries in China.

Yongle was flawed. Fang Xiaoru, the former Emperor’s former tutor was but one causality in a disturbingly fervent purging of the Chinese power structure. A common cultural ‘kicker’ to the classic threat of execution was the execution of you and your family, your family’s families, your family’s families’ families and so on. Threatened with execution of all nine degrees of his kinship, he fatuously replied “Never mind nine! Go with ten!” and – alone in Chinese history – he was sentenced to execution of 10 degrees of kinship: along with his entire family, every former student or peer of Fang Xiaoru that the Yongle Emperor’s agents could find was also killed. It was said that as he died, cut in half at the waist, Fang used his own blood to write the character “usurper.” In 1420, Yongle ordered 2,800 ladies-in-waiting to a slow slicing death, and watched.

I wonder. We see history through a glass, darkly. But I still wonder. That these two operations should originate in one person and be in some way his attributes satisfies and at the same time disturbs me. To investigate the emotion is the purpose of this note.

There is a historical answer. There is always, it seems, a historical answer. Born as Zhu Di there was but a light chance he would become Emperor. That he did forced a primitive calculus to the forefront: kill those, and there were many, who would kill him or die. That he did not die from poison or rebellion is commentary enough on his effectiveness. Creating books is a common enough task, though his largess is unprecedented. The concept, however, is tame or nearly so. But behind the concept is reality. Reality, in these circumstances, is deafening.

It is worthwhile to consider that erecting the encyclopedia and burning the families were not simultaneous acts. Imagine, dear reader, what image we receive if the Emperor began by destroying and then resigned himself to preserving, or that of a disillusioned king who destroyed what he had previously and meticulously cataloged. Both conjectures are dramatic, but they lack, as far as I know, any basis in history.

Shi-shan Henry Tsai relates the foreword, ostensibly written by the Emperor, “The reader can now follow the phonetic order to search for words, then follow the words to search for events, and as soon as he opens the volumes, there is nothing that can hide from him.” My emphasis. Too true, I thought. This information favors another interpretation. Perhaps the encyclopedia was a metaphor. What was written in the encyclopedia was the not just present, or even a part of it. Perhaps the encyclopedia was a future. A future where everything was but a reflection of one man. Not merely a future of what is officially condoned, but a future that would always remember. Perhaps those who worshiped the past had to be sentenced away from the present for the project to work. Because the present was a task as immense, as gross and as useless as the encyclopedia. Perhaps the past was a challenge and the Emperor Yongle thought “Men love the past and neither I nor my executioners can do anything against that love, but someday there will be a man who feels as I do and he will efface my memory and be my shadow and my mirror and not know it.” Perhaps Yongle cataloged his empire because he knew that it perishable and destroyed the people because he understood that that they were in some way a cancellation of the present and future–that they were imperishable. Or thought that they were imperishable.

The tenacious encyclopedia “which at this moment, and at all moments, teases about lands I shall never see, is the shadow of a Caesar who ordered the most reverent of nations to burn its past while creating a future; it is plausible that this idea moves us in itself apart from the conjectures it allows.”

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3 thoughts on “The Lost Encyclopedia

  1. Something I always feel about those who compile encyclopedias, although it’s likely not so is that they have the impression that everything worth knowing is known and learning is at an end. Which make the placement of this tale in China apropos, since so many thing were discovered/invented there and almost uniformly never developed to practicality. That had to wait until they came to the west, and the development led to so much more knowledge.

    …or some pretentious tommyrot like that 😀

    • Tommyrot, but of a particularly good vintage. “That they have the impression that everything worth knowing is known and learning is at an end.”

      I like that, a lot. There’s something final about an encyclopedia that I should’ve seized, but didn’t. You’re absolutely right.

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